Child Mortality in the Middle Ages

One of the hardest things to read about is the infant/child mortality rates that were prevalent up until the invention of antibiotics–and certainly in the Dark and Middle Ages. It may be that it was much worse in Victorian England, when cities grew large, but looking at King Edward I’s progeny, your heart just bleeds for him and his wife (even if he was a tyrant to the Welsh!).

Edward and his first wife, Isabella, produced 16 children. Of those, five were sons. Of those, John lived five years; Henry, six. Alphonso lived until he was eleven, and only Edward, their last child, born in 1284, lived to adulthood and inherited the kingdom.

Of their 11 daughters, five lived to adulthood and six died before the age of three. As a mother of four, to think about losing a child is awful and the mind shies away at the very thought. It is the one thing I cannot even begin to contemplate. As a human being, how do you survive losing half your children to disease? Or more than half?

On top of which, out of his 19 total children (3 by his second wife, Marguerite), 8 lived to grow up. However, only two lived what we would consider longish lives.   The mean for the adult women is 41.8 with a median of 35; the mean for adult men is 36.6 with a median of 38.  Combined, the mean is 39.8 and the median is 35/38.  That is much worse than the Welsh/Marcher nobility documented here:

Children of Edward I:

Daughter:  1255 (stillborn)

Katherine:  1261-1264 (age 3)

Joan:  1265-1265 (infant)

John:  1266-1271 (age 5)

Henry:  1268-1274 (age 6)

Eleanor:  1269-1298 (age 29)

Daughter: 1271 (infant)

Joan:  1272-1307  (age 35)

It does not seem that either Eleanor or Joan died in childbirth, or if they did, the child died with them and there is no record of their births.

Alphonso:  1273-1284 (age 11)

Margaret:  1275-1333 (age 58)

Berengaria:  1276-1278 (2)

Daughter: 1278 (infant)

Mary:  1279-1332  (53)

Son:  1281 (infant)

Elizabeth:  1282-1316 (aged 34)  She was married to Humphrey de Bohun (4th Earl of Hereford) and died in childbirth, having attempted to give birth to her 11th child in 13 years.

Edward:  1284-1327 (age 43)

Thomas:  1300-1338 (age 38)

Edmund:  1301-1330 (age 29)

Eleanor:  1306-1310 (4)

To include all children in the mortality rate brings the mean down to 18.4 and the median to a hideous 6.

Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages

How long did people live in the Middle Ages?

That, of course, varied according to diet, climate, location, relative wealth, etc., but the answer is surely not as long as we do now. For starters, infants and children died at a horrific rate (some say up to 1/3 of all died before the age of 5) and a significant percentage of women died in association with childbirth: 5% perhaps from the birth itself, often dying with the child, and a further 15% from childbed fever–the infections that followed a poorly managed delivery (by our standards).

Following that, if a person made it out of childhood, they could be expected to live into their middle forties, provided they maintained good health and weren’t killed in war.  Both those, of course, are big ‘ifs’.

Below is the recorded birth and death date for the adult royal family of Wales and associated Marcher relations, beginning with Joanna (the daughter of King John of England) and Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great, the Prince of Wales).  Eliminating individuals who died before adulthood completely, from the dates recorded below, the mean life expectancy for women was 43.6 years, with a median of 42/43; for men, it was a mean of 48.7 and a median of 48/49.

Please be aware that these people are of the highest class of society at the time, granting them (possibly) an easier life and longer life spans.  I have indicated in parentheses the cause of death when it wasn’t old age or disease.

Joanna:  1190-1237 (daughter of King John of England; wife of Llywelyn Fawr) (47)
Llywelyn Fawr:  1173-1240  (Prince of Wales) (67)
Tangwystl:  1168-1206 (mistress of Llywelyn Fawr) (38)
Gwladys:  1206-1251 (princess of Wales) (45)
Ralph Mortimer 1198-1246 (husband of Gladwys) (48)
Gruffydd:  1196-1244 (Prince of Wales) (fell from a rope while escaping the Tower of London) (48)
Roger Mortimer:  1231-1282 (51)
Maud de Braose:  1224-1300 (76)
William de Braose:  1198-1230 (hung by Llywelyn Fawr for sleeping with his wife, Joanna) (32)
Eve Marshall:  1203-1246 (43)
Dafydd ap Llywelyn:  1208-1246 (Prince of Wales) (42)
Isabella de Braose:  1222-1248  (wife of Dafydd) (26)
Eleanor de Braose:  1226-1251 (25)  (childbirth)
Humphrey de Bohun:  1225-1265 (40)  (war)
Edmund Mortimer:  1251-1304 (53)
Margaret de Fiennes:  1269-1333 (64)
Humphrey de Bohun:  1249-1298 (49)
Maud de Fiennes:  1254-1296 (42)
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd:  1228-1282 (54) (war)
Elinor de Montfort:  1252-1282 (30)  (childbirth)

Archaeological evidence indicates that Anglo-Saxons back in the Early Middle Ages (400 to 1000 A.D.) lived short lives and were buried in cemeteries, much like Englishmen today. Field workers unearthed 65 burials (400 to 1000 A.D.) from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in England and found none who lived past 45. This site and this site has similar statistics.

Kings did better. The mean life expectancy of kings of Scotland and England, reigning from 1000 A.D. to 1600 A.D. were 51 and 48 years, respectively. Their monks did not fare as well. In the Carmelite Abbey, only five percent survived past 45. This site says wealthier people would have a life expectancy of more than forty years.

Several sources on the internet argue that if a person could get through childhood and early adulthood, he could expect to live into the 60’s or even 70’s.  That claim is not substantiated by the data I’ve found.  It also seems like a specious argument to say that a person could live to be 64 IF he didn’t go to war, she didn’t have a baby, and nobody got sick.  Each of those conditions was endemic to life in the Middle Ages.  A calculation of average—whether median or mean—life spans HAS to take this into account.  That’s like saying “all the men in my family would have lived to be 91 if they hadn’t all died of heart attacks at 63”.  It also implies 1) that children aren’t ‘people’; and 2) that ‘people’ aren’t women—since pregnancy and childbirth were unavoidable for women in that era unless they were barren or nuns.

To see the life expectancy of the family of King Edward I:

To see the family tree of the Royal House of Wales see:


Daily Living in the Middle Ages

The tapestry to the right is The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates, a Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520), located now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Depicted are the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, represent Death in this tapestry, as they triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. This is the third subject in Petrarch’s poem The Triumphs. First, Love triumphs; then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity.

Pretty gloomy, eh?

From a modern perspective, life in the Middle Ages appears not to have a lot to recommend it.  For example, for the majority of women, their lives consisted of unceasing labor, hand-to-mouth existence, a total lack of political representation (although that was not much different than for the majority of men, if they were landless), restrictions of the Catholic Church, societal acceptance of physical abuse, and the very real possibility in dying in childbirth at a young age.

For men, it wasn’t much different, substituting dying in battle for childbirth and you aren’t far off.  Both men and women died of illness and infection, such that the median lifespan during this time was in the middle forties.

But people did live then.  They raised their children, they cared for one another, and it does seem from what has been passed down to us, that they found beauty and pleasure in their lives.

Digging deeper into history, there is far more going on there than simply than the Hobbesian  “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  (This quote, by the way, has been taken out of context for most of its life.  Hobbes wasn’t describing life in the Middle Ages; he was explaining what life would be life without a strong monarchy.  In his opinion, absolute monarchy was a way to avoid the war of ‘man against man’.)

While a strong central government in England, led by Edward I in the 13th century, did have some affect on averting war within the nation, it led to more wars against other nations, and in Wales in particular, a far less free and materially wealthy existence.

In fact, if you look at the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, the lives of average people, in terms of nutrition, longevity, cleanliness, etc. were on the whole far, far worse, than their lives would have been as peasants in the Middle Ages. has a good series of descriptions about different aspects of life in the Middle Ages. For example:

“Medieval villages consisted of a population comprised of mostly of farmers. Houses, barns sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village, which was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures. Medieval society depended on the village for protection and a majority of people during these centuries called a village home. Most were born, toiled, married, had children and later died within the village, rarely venturing beyond its boundaries.

Common enterprise was the key to a village’s survival. Some villages were temporary, and the society would move on if the land proved infertile or weather made life too difficult. Other villages continued to exist for centuries. Every village had a lord, even if he didn’t make it his permanent residence, and after the 1100’s castles often dominated the village landscape. Medieval Europeans may have been unclear of their country’s boundaries, but they knew every stone, tree, road and stream of their village. Neighboring villages would parley to set boundaries that would be set out in village charters.

Medieval peasants were either classified as free men or as “villeins,” those who owed heavy labor service to a lord, were bound to the land, and subject to feudal dues. Village life was busy for both classes, and for women as well as men. Much of this harsh life was lived outdoors, wearing simple dress and subsisting on a meager diet.

Village life would change from outside influences with market pressures and new landlords. As the centuries passed, more and more found themselves drawn to larger cities. Yet modern Europe owes much to these early medieval villages.” is another good site. Much of this is oversimplified and specifically related to the Feudal system, which was not uniform across Europe. The differences between what went on in France verses Wales, for example, are very great.

Welsh people were not farmers but herders, had fewer villages, and land ownership was more egalitarian:

“Wales in the Age of the Princes was not a primitive society.

There were three main social groups: the uchelwyr – the upper class, thebonheddwyr – the freemen and the taeogion – the unfree peasants. Each group had its role in society.

The taeogion (villeins) lived in compact villages in the fertile lowlands. Organised by the maer y biswail (the mayor of the dunghill), they supplied the needs of the princely court. They also had to do farm work for the prince each year. Tied to the land, they could not leave their own village. Their arable crops were vital for Wales. Edward I realised this and, in his 1277 invasion, his forces quickly took Anglesey and seized the grain harvest.

The lowlands were linked to the hills economically. Farming communities moved from the hendref, their main settlement in the lowlands, to the hafodwith its upland pastures each summer. The upland farmers were generally bonheddwyr (freemen) who lived in kinship groups, each looking after its owngwely (clan land). They performed military service for the prince, but did not do menial tasks like the taeogion. The upland farms were also vital to Wales. They enabled the Welsh to keep their economic and political independence when the Marcher lords occupied the fertile lowlands.

While the traditional view is that the Welsh were not an urban people, over 80 towns were established in the period 1100-1300. Towns did develop more in the Marcher lordships because these areas were richer, but the Welsh princes also encouraged the development of towns, often near their castles. Trade increased in tandem with these new towns and Wales exported primary goods like cattle, skins, fleeces and cheese. Imports included necessities like salt, wheat and iron, but reliance on these imports would be a weakness against an aggressive King of England.”


Medieval Life Expectancy: Muslim World verses Christian World

It is taken as given in this day and age that people living in Europe in the Middle Ages didn’t bathe much, if at all, had no real knowledge of science or medicine, and their high mortality rates were a consequence of this general ignorance.  Neither of the these assertions are, in fact, true, but the average human life span in the Middle Ages was significantly lower than the modern one nonetheless.   I have discussed this in several places on this blog.

Here: I discuss the life span of the royal house of Wales and the Marche.  Eliminating individuals who died before adulthood completely from the equation, the mean life expectancy for women was 43.6 years, with a median of 42/43; for men, it was a mean of 48.7 and a median of 48/49.  That I elminiated those who died in childhood changes the equation and it’s hard to know in all these calculations if the statistician’s numbers indicate mean (the average number), median (the middle number), and what effect including infant deaths has on the statistics.

Furthermore, here I discuss the mortality rates among King Edward I’s own family.  Out of his 19 total children (3 by his second wife, Marguerite), 8 lived to grow up. However, only two lived what we would consider longish lives.   Of those who actually grew up, the mean for the adult women is 41.8 with a median of 35; the mean for adult men is 36.6 with a median of 38.  Combined, the mean is 39.8 and the median is 35/38.  To include all children in the mortality rate brings the mean down to 18.4 and the median to a hideous 6.

What, then, were the mortality rates in the Muslim world?  Muhammad promoted explorations in the sciences, including medicine.  Did this increase the general lifespan of the population?

It appears not.

From my reading, not only was their little difference in lifespan across Europe, from the UK to Italy and Spain (it wasn’t cold that killed people so much as density of population that spread disease.  Warfare and child birth killed people in equal measure in Italy as England–maybe more warfare in Europe, come to think on it), but into Asia as well.

This paper ( suggests that child mortality was equally high in the cities of the Middle East as in Europe.  This is further confirmed by other sources (Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, by James Lindsay page 187).  If child mortality was high, then death in childbirth was probably also high, and thus the average death rate of women would likely match that of the rest of the medieval world.

The long citation at Wikipedia  presents divergent views, with some texts suggesting that medieval Muslim clerics lived very long lives in comparison to the lifespan of Europeans–though some studies have shown comparable lifespans for monks/nuns in Europe, since that profession removes both childbirth and war as likely causes of death.

From that source:  “The demographics of medieval Islamic society varied in some significant aspects from other agricultural societies, including a decline in birth rates as well as a change in life expectancy. Other traditional agrarian societies are estimated to have had an average life
expectancy of 20 to 25 years, while ancient Rome and medieval Europe are estimated at 20 to 30
years. Conrad I. Lawrence estimates the average lifespan in the early Islamic Caliphate to be above 35 years for the general population, and several studies on the lifespans of Islamic scholars concluded that members of this occupational group had a life expectancy between 69 and 75
years, though this longevity was not representative of the general population.

The Citations are all in Wikipedia so you can look them up.  Once again, it is unclear if the authors are talking about median or mean, and to what extent ‘average’ lifespan includes children who die in childbirth or before the age of five.  has a nice list of books for further exploration of this issue.